Esidimeni probe opens old wounds for victims’ families

Johannesburg- There are no results for The inquest into the deaths of at least 144 mental health patients, who were moved from psychiatric hospital Life Esidimeni to ill-equipped and unregistered non-government organisations (NGO), is opening fresh wounds for the families of the deceased and of those still missing.

While more harrowing testimony was heard this week about the conditions and the suffering the patients endured, Bongani Sithole, whose elder brother Robert Bhekumuzi died after he was moved from the Cullinan Life Esidimeni facility where he had stayed for 28 years, said he would like a personal apology from former MEC of health Qedani Mahlangu.

Sithole said his brother was moved to an NGO in Hammanskraal, which Bhekumuzi would refer to as dagga “because it was stinking so bad”.

Sithole said Bhekumuzi suffered from a mental health disability and epileptic fits. “He was complaining that he was sick and hungry.  Someone then called me to fetch him and didn’t say why. I had to go through three people before I found out he was dead.

“When we got there the next day, my dead brother had a big hole in his leg and his hands looked like they beat him up. I didn’t find his ID [identity document] or his clothes until today. “Those images still haunt me,” said Sithole. “I want a personal apology from former MEC Qedani Mahlangu.” An inquest into the deaths of the patients started on July 19 and resumed again on August 30. It aims to find out whether anyone can be held criminally liable for the tragedy.

Cindy was about seven years old when she was admitted to Life Esidimeni and stayed there for over 27 years.

An arbitration in 2018 headed by judge Dikgang Moseneke awarded families R1-million in damages and another R180 000 for emotional suffering and R20 000 for funeral costs. Not all the families, however, have received their money.

The families said again this week that no amount of money would bring back their relatives who were “abused, starved and tortured”.

Zenzele Mazibuko found his father Eric Mangana Mashilaone months after he had reportedly died, in what he described as a badly decomposed state. He said his father suffered from schizophrenia and was 74 years old.

He said he was even more disgusted when he heard, through the inquest last week, what Mahlangu had said.

He was referring to the testimony of the former managing director of the Life Esidimeni Group, Morgan Mkhatshwa, who confirmed that in the February 2015 meeting, Mahlangu informed them that in Brazil families cared for their own members.

He said she told them families walked the streets with the patients chained. Mkhatshwa said when they raised concerns that low-income families could not care for the patients, Mahlangu told them she grew up sleeping under a stove, and mental healthcare users could do the same.

Mazibuko said: “We found my father’s body in a hospital mortuary in Pretoria.”

“It is difficult for me to forgive and understand what the government did to all the patients.” Vaughan van Rooyen said his sister Cindy was about seven years old when she was admitted to Life Esidimeni and had stayed there for over 27 years. He said in 2015, he was not told about the move. “I only found out when she was moved to Takalani after I had to look for her for over two weeks.”

He described the Diepkloof Takalani NGO as being more of a school for young children. “I only saw her for two days before she passed on and she looked like a skeleton,” said Van Rooyen about his sister who was mute, dyslexic and needed 24-hour care.

“I received R1.2-million as a settlement from the government but someone – government officials and the NGOs – must pay and take responsibility by going to jail for their negligence,” he said.

A total of 36 witnesses will testify as the inquest continues.

To read more political news and views from this week’s newspaper, click here. 

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